INTERVIEW: Therese Shechter on The Institution of Motherhood in ‘My So-Called Selfish Life’ (2021)

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. The popular playground rhyme which opens My So-Called Selfish Life, echoes the message which the film interrogates: motherhood is inevitable. In her paradigm-shifting documentary, feminist filmmaker Therese Shechter explores the lives of childfree women, and examines motherhood as an ingrained societal institution. With a creative mix of interviews and media clips, the film interrogates the social pressures that can make women, in Shechter’s words, feel like “walking uteruses”. I had the opportunity to speak with Shechter about the genesis of her new film.

Shechter tells me that she has always known that she did not want kids, but never spoke about it, or even believed she would “get away with it.” “It’s something I’ve been thinking about my whole life,” she explains. “I tend to make documentaries about things that I have questions about personally…things that confuse me, things that piss me off, things where I feel like I am being lied to and want to know why. And the concept of motherhood and the definition of true womanhood as being a mother is one of those things.”

A poster for the film 'My So-Called Selfish Life'. The text is displayed in orange font, and a vintage style illustration depicts a woman who smiles and waves while running away from a stork, who is carrying a baby.
Image courtesy of Trixie Films

In 2016, Shechter created a Facebook survey, asking for people’s experiences on not having children. “I expected not many people would respond…in the first week I got 1900 responses.” Shechter now runs a childfree community on Facebook with more than 10,000 members.

My So-Called Selfish Life challenges the troubling idea that a woman’s life is not fulfilling or complete unless she follows the traditional script of motherhood. The documentary combines the perspectives of gynaecologists, sociologists, and women of different sexualities and cultures, to investigate the stigma surrounding childfree lifestyles. The film introduces us to platforms such as NON (National Organisation of Non-Parents), and Blair Koenig’s hilariously named book and blog, ‘Shut The F**** Up Parents’, which showcases the oversharing of children on social media. 

Shechter emphasises just how deeply motherhood is ingrained within and promoted by society. “These things that we consider in everyday life – you get married, you have kids – such an ordinary occurrence that I don’t think we give it that much thought”. Shechter tells me that her thinking behind the film was “taking this very ordinary thing and peeling back the layers. Looking beyond personal stories to a system of oppression and control”. She adds: “I’m not saying that all women are under the control of some mastermind, but there are these systems of control which seek to send us all in the same direction, or the direction that people with power would like us to go in.”

The film also looks at the obsession with motherhood in celebrity culture. Shechter tells me that during her research, she found hundreds of magazine covers focusing on Jennifer Aniston’s pregnancy rumours. It was eye-opening to discover just how many successful women have had their fertility scrutinised more than their professional accomplishments.

My So-Called Selfish Life even explores historical reproductive oppression, touching on eugenics and forced sterilisation, as well as the reproductive freedom brought by the contraceptive pill. We hear from a woman who, the morning after declaring on national television that she did not want children, was fired as a teacher. Similarly, Anne Kingston’s 2009 Maclean’s cover story, The case against having kids, was met with public outrage. As Kingston tells Shechter in the film, “people took it really personally, they didn’t see it as a cultural subject, which is what it is.” 

Therese Shecter, a middle-aged white woman with short curly hair, stands in front of a white wall. The words 'My So-Called Selfish Life' are written in orange font. Behind her is a metal barricade with a row of strollers. To her left, a woman with short hair can be seen from behind as she pushes a stroller, next to a child in an orange shirt.
Image courtesy of Trixie Films

Shechter acknowledges how Black women’s stories surrounding the childfree conversation have been notoriously ignored by the media. “I’m really grateful to non-white participants who were generous with their own histories and stories”, she says. “What does it mean to say I actually don’t want children, with a history of forced sterilisation? How does it play out in that community? Everybody brought their own experiences and knowledge to it in a way that I alone would never be able to do, and frankly shouldn’t.”

Dawn T describes the motherhood stigma within her community: “as a woman of colour, you’re expected to be the caregiver extraordinaire, and naturally maternalistic.” We meet activist and social scientist Dr. Kimya Nuru Dennis, who runs a childfree course. Here we learn about the concept of pronatalism, which encourages – and even forces – reproduction. We hear from an OBGYN, who recounts the many hoops women jump through to get hysterectomies, because they are told that they will regret having them. 

The film interrogates a society which often unfairly stigmatizes childfree, single women as “spinsters” and “crazy cat ladies”. We even hear from Shechter’s own mother, and how her family has never celebrated Mother’s Day: “We don’t get chocolates and flowers for women who are not mothers… all women should be celebrated.” 

Shechter explores the emphasis on a woman’s “biological clock”: the anticipation of giving birth as a ticking time bomb, and “the culmination of the female journey.” She examines the problematic idea that motherhood is ultimately inevitable. A Clearblue advert shows us women rejoicing at their positive pregnancy tests. As the film recognises, how often do we see women celebrating the fact that they are not pregnant? She does, however, acknowledge that Clearblue has since released an ad of women breathing a sigh of relief at their negative result. “It’s a great step forward, but it still feels like not enough”, she tells me. Shechter notes that the ad is framed as “not yet, maybe later.” Not wanting children is frequently depicted as temporary, rather than a finite and legitimate lifestyle choice. As the film identifies, it is a common occurrence for newly married women to be asked when they are having children, not if, as though motherhood is their biological destiny.

Therese Shechter, a middle-aged white woman with short curly blonde hair, stands in front of some streamers. She looks at the camera and smiles. Her lips are closed and her arms are crossed, and she wears a long-sleeved black top.
Image courtesy of Trixie Films

I asked Shechter how we as a society can help to challenge this stigma. “On a very personal level, I had no role models growing up that didn’t have children and were portrayed as happy and not insane or depressed”, she tells me. “It would be nice to have more role models of people who choose not to have children, and they’re cool, and it’s a choice…nice if our media could reflect that back to us, that motherhood is not a foregone conclusion”. Shechter shares with me her exciting hopes to show the film in conferences and schools: “the goal is to try and get it seen as widely as possible, with some good conversations to be had”.

My So-Called Selfish Life is the third in Shechter’s feminist trilogy, following I Was a Teenage Feminist and How to Lose Your Virginity. I was fascinated to know what is next for her. “I like to say that I make films that disturb what we consider most sacred about womanhood”, says Shechter. “If you follow the ancient trinity of maiden, mother, crone, then I think the next film’s gonna have to be about menopause.” However, Shechter emphasises that the focus for next year is “getting My So-Called Selfish Life out into the world – that’s a big job”.

Ultimately, the message I took away from the film was that there is no “correct” female narrative. Whether you want to have children or not, neither lifestyle is right or wrong, and there is always a choice. My So-Called Selfish Life will be publicly released in 2022.